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Early-Childhood Policy: Fix the Federal Programs First

Earlier this week, I wrote about what I believe are some significant shortcomings in the Obama administration's Early Learning Challenge program. Today, I'd like to address an objection I've heard from some early childhood advocates who admit these shortcomings but say that ELC is still a critical victory because it represents a federal investment in building state early learning systems rather than the status quo. But the more I think about this strategy, then less I get why it makes sense.

In K-12 education, federal efforts to improve student achievement must work primarily by leverage changes in state policy and practice--because states, not the feds, are responsible for education, and the federal government provides only about 10% of K-12 funding. But that's not the case in early childhood education, where the federal government provides the lion's share of public spending through Head Start and child care subsidy programs.

That means the feds have a lot more ability to directly drive change in early childhood than in K-12--starting with Head Start, in which grantees receive money directly from the feds. Given the size of the program, the need of the participants served, and the amount of funding in play, it seems that the first step in federal early childhood policy should be maximizing the quality and impacts from Head Start funding. The recently finalized Head Start redesignation regulations are a good first step towards doing this, and may ultimately have a greater impact than ELC (that impact depends, of course, on a slew of implementation issues over the next few years, not to mention politics and funding). Similarly, it makes little sense for the federal government to create a new program to support increase coordination and alignment in early childhood programs when disparate federal regulations for Head Start, child care, Title I, and special education remain a major barrier to state and local efforts to improve such coordination. And we also need to face the reality that a substantial amount of child care subsidy funding is going to keep children in low-quality settings that may actually harm their development. Until the feds align their own policies to better support high-quality early childhood education, investing in state systems will have limited impact. Fixing these problems is by no means easy--particularly in the current political and budget environment--but we can't make any progress in changing those dynamics if these topics remain outside the debate.

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